“I grew up with four sisters in a single-parent household in Starkville, MS. My grandmother passed away when my mom was 16 years old, leaving my mom to figure out the world on her own. Coping with loneliness and depression, she became addicted to drugs and had a hard time raising us. I remember being hungry one day, and our refrigerator was empty except for a bag of powdered eggs and a jar of pickle juice with no pickles. I poured the juice into ice trays and made pickle-juice ice cubes. I sold the cubes out of our kitchen window for 10 cents each, making enough money to buy some of my favorite snacks. I learned early how to help take care of myself and my sisters.
We struggled a lot. My mom was once gone for a few days, and we had nothing to eat. A teenage boy was labeled a menace in our neighborhood, so my mother didn’t want him around. But underneath his tough exterior was a good heart, and he wanted to help us. We went to Kroger while my mom was still away, and he stuck a pack of name-brand hotdogs down his pants — stealing them for us. That day, I decided to work hard to change my life.
In sixth grade, I started selling candy at school to make money. My mom gave me the idea to buy a pack of 10 Reece’s for a dollar and sell them at school for a quarter each. She also taught me to save my profit and spend it on more merchandise to keep the business growing. It was a lesson in entrepreneurship at an early age.
One pack of candy grew to 10 and 20 packs. I was known as the ‘candy girl’ and hustled candy out of my backpack purse with refills in my locker. The profit I made from selling candy would help buy food or pay a bill.
My older sister was eight years older and helped care for me. We didn’t have a washer or dryer, so I often wore dirty clothes to school. My sister was in a sewing class in high school and sometimes brought material home to make outfits. She tried to help me have clean clothes and something new to wear. A good part of being the ‘Candy Girl’ was people didn’t care what I wore because I had candy in my purse.
Most of my teachers knew about my mom and our situation, so they didn’t write me up for selling candy. But in middle school, a teacher caught someone passing me a notebook across the class with an order for two Kit Kats. I put the candy in the notebook pocket and passed it back. The teacher watched it happen and politely took the notebook. They called me to the principal’s office; I had to stop selling candy or be expelled. I didn’t sell candy again until I started high school.
I went to work as soon as I could to earn money to keep my little sisters from going through the same difficulties that I did. My first full-time job was at Christy’s Hamburgers when I was 15. I worked in the kitchen from 5 p.m. to closing. Sometimes I got off at two or three a.m. and went to school a few hours later. I worked at different restaurants during the rest of high school.
After high school, I worked at McDonalds making $5.35 an hour, putting myself through East Mississippi Community College on grants and Federal Aid. One morning, a regular came through the drive-through line and offered me a job at the Diamond Grove Center making $8.65 an hour. I didn’t know what the center was, but it was more money, and I applied. That job was God at work because Diamond Grove is a place for children with behavior and emotional problems; I wanted to work with these kids to help make their lives better.
I was passionate about my job and finished my degree at Mississippi State, majoring in sociology. After graduation, I started at Millcreek Schools, again working with kids with behavioral and emotional problems. I have been there for 17 years.
My older sister owned a boutique, and I learned a lot from helping her. I was working my primary job but also became an entrepreneur and opened Beautiful Boutique in 2011, a plus-size boutique. This became another way of giving back, and we also helped families during disasters such as fires and tornadoes. We also sponsored teenagers whose families didn’t have the money for prom and provided the dresses and tuxes. We collaborated with hairstylists and barbers for young boys and girls to provide free services. I hired young people and taught them how to work in a positive environment. I also taught young ladies how to open and run a business.
After seven good years, God told me it was time to close Beautiful Boutique. He gave me the vision of a group home for homeless children in the Starkville area. I wasn’t ready to let go of my store, but God kept sending me confirmations, so I obeyed and closed in 2018. I was lost for a minute but then began working on the new vision of Safe Place Residential Facility.
Then COVID hit and shut everything down. My boss sent a group text laying off school employees until further notice. I was in shock. How was I going to pay my bills? Right then, God told me to feed people.
I only had $50 in my pocket and no job. I was low on food and needed that money. I could cook three dishes: fish, chicken, and spaghetti. How would this work? I chose obedience and made 25 plates of spaghetti. I posted on Facebook that I was laid off and wanted to help people in the same boat. I told them to inbox me if they needed a plate, and I would deliver.
That one post helped me meet many people in need where they were, using a plate of food to show them they were loved. People saw the social media posts about free meals and started donating either money or canned goods. I did a lot of YouTubing to learn how to cook more dishes. I would prepare the meals in my small kitchen, praying over the food as I cook.
Sundays were once our family day when Mom cooked dinner for us. It was my favorite day of the week, but it stopped after the drugs took over. Providing dinners for my new, bigger family brings back something I had missed. Mrs. Ellen was a wonderful elderly lady who I met while serving those meals. She called us her earth angels, which became the name of our outreach program. Earth Angels has given more than 16,000 meals to people facing food insecurity. Wednesday is our main meal day, and we deliver roughly 150 plates a week. Local restaurants often donate food, and volunteers help deliver. Delivering meals grew into helping homeless individuals find temporary and permanent shelter.
People are surprised to hear we have homeless families and children in Starkville. Sometimes it’s even a coworker who’s homeless. They may be smiling at work but sleeping in the parking lot at a Walmart at night. I helped a 70-year-old lady who was sleeping in a 24-hour laundromat. There are even homeless students at Mississippi State University who have hit hard times or don’t have family support. I have delivered food to students living in their cars.
I started Safe Place Foundation, Inc.
in November 2020 to provide food, shelter, education and resources to at-risk kids and the community. I am often the middleman connecting people to resources. We recently helped a family of eight living in a van to move into a new house and furnished them with beds and couches. I have two storage units with furniture and items people donate for us to give to someone else. It all works together.
We also help with back-to-school drives and provide hygiene packs for children to make sure they are clean for school. My heart is always with kids, and I started a Life Skills Enhancement program for youth that meets one Saturday a month. We teach time management, cooking, entrepreneurship, resume building, and interviewing skills. I am still working on the therapeutic group home.
Constantly caring for others gets tiring though, and sometimes I have to slow down and take care of myself. That’s not always easy. I caught COVID in August of 2021. I was in the ICU for five days and almost passed away. The doctor told me to stay calm and breathe to avoid the ventilator. I prayed and read the Bible. A person my age passed away down the hall. That ICU room was lonely, and I didn’t want to die there alone. I made it out, but my body isn’t working like it did before COVID. I can’t wallow too long though because somebody else needs me. There were times when I was sick or didn’t feel like cooking, and my family stepped in. My sisters help prepare meals or make hygiene packs. My nieces are toddlers, but they help, too. I’m trying to lead by example and teach them humility while they’re young.
I obeyed God and refused to follow my mom’s path or become a statistic. She is proud of where I am today. God uses my difficulties to help me meet others where they are. Many people don’t need a handout, they just need help over a hurdle. My fulfillment comes from helping to change the lives of others.”